I’m in the midst of teaching my first difficult critical text: “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” by Adrienne Rich. I discovered, in the process of preparation, that I’ve fallen prey to an unproductive way of conceiving the project of teaching theory.
Theory is part of the reason I’m in grad school. I love it. I love diving into difficult texts and understanding why they’re worth reading, why they have to be so difficult, and how their difficulty strengthens their argument. I have the good fortune of having taken many great theory courses, taught by people who just somehow seem to know what’s up. And by what’s up, I mean, they seem to know fucking everything about the texts we were reading.
So, naturally, I had pretty irrational expectations for myself going into this first class on the Rich essay. In preparation, I reread the essay several times and outlined it in two different ways. I’ve convinced myself that knowing the major moves the essay takes and multiple definitions of all polysyllabic words it contains (even if only used once) is not enough: I must also know the etymology of these words, and the personal histories of all theorists mentioned.
So we spent fifty minutes discussing this essay and, guess what? We only skirted my newly acquired breadth of knowledge. Unfortunately, this was not as encouraging as you might expect. Being a first-time teacher, I of course did not say “Oh, I must be doing something right!” I said, “If I knew even more, we’d have been able to go even deeper!” Though this is partially me being hard on myself, it’s also a good impulse, because this class isn’t about my amount of knowledge on the topic. I need to have some knowledge, obviously, but what’s more important is the students’ learning.
The pressure I put on myself to know the ins and outs of the text being taught is leftover from being a student of theory; it’s not a teacherly impulse. I’m too used to having an inferiority complex toward theory, of throwing myself at it without reserve, for the sake of nailing it down into my little brain. Now, I have to open the text to students, so that they can do that instead. Therefore, I’ve come to realize that teaching theory brings on growing pains in me, as a young teacher. I’m a little jealous of my students!
One teacherly impulse I can attempt to take up is accepting where I am in my current comprehension. To my student self, this would look like “winging it”: attending class having only skimmed the text. But I can also conceive this acceptance as part of being ready to teach; it’s a different calibration of preparedness.
Rich provides a helpful comparison. She theorizes a “lesbian continuum”: a range of female to female relationships, from familial to romantic. This continuum is offered as an alternative to counter-productive questions, like, how can we tell if someone is legitimately lesbian? Instead, it presents the possibility that women, in their a priori emotional attachments to each other, are already lesbians, at least to some degree:
When looking at the lesbian continuum, being prepared to teach theory is like being a lesbian. I’m a student, so I’m always already ready, to some degree. What makes my role different from my students’ is that I have to have a sense of where I am on a continuum of comprehension, and have a plan for helping them find themselves on this continuum.
Next time I’m falling down the spiral of, “Am I comprehending this text? REALLY comprehending it? How can I be sure!?” I have the option of remembering that the answer is yes. It’s just yes; it’s that simple. What I should be asking instead is, how can I help my students be ready? This question is both easier and harder, and also, wonderfully new.
In lesbian/feminist solidarity,